There are two prevailing interpretations of the recent Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea.
The first interpretation is that these are proxy attacks, sponsored by Iran, aimed at undermining freedom of the seas and the American-led international rules-based order. By disrupting shipping and trade flows, Iran gets to extract a price from the West for supporting Israel against Hamas and Islamic Jihad, their proxies in Gaza. Certainly the relevant weapons are being provided by Iran, which suggests that Iran sees strategic benefits in these attacks.
Iran’s autocratic allies and sponsors also benefit: The Chinese, who originated much of this missile technology, certainly cannot be unhappy to see American and allied naval resources tied up in the Red Sea, when they might otherwise be in the Taiwan straits and the South China Sea. They’ll also be delighted to have an opportunity to test missile and drone technology in a live-fire scenario against American convoy defenses. And Russia, of course, benefits both from American resources being diverted from the Ukraine conflict and from the increased oil prices that emerge from chaos in the shipping lanes. But here Chinese and Russian interests diverge: The Chinese are highly dependent on hydrocarbons from Iran and other Persian Gulf states. This Chinese reliance on maritime commerce goes a long way toward explaining why Iranian missiles are being used to shut down the Bab al-Mandeb, but not the Straits of Hormuz.
The second interpretation of these attacks rests on the desire to harm Israel by disrupting shipping to and from Israeli ports. While the Houthis may well desire to attack Israel as an expression of solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza, their local fight for territory and influence in Yemen, against Saudi proxies, is surely their first priority. Firing missiles at Israel, Saudi Arabia, and at international shipping invites reprisals from powerful Western enemies.
There is a third interpretation that brings the situation into clearer focus: Prior to the events of October 7th, 2023, an alliance between Israel and the Arab states, against Iran, was emerging. The Gulf states desperately need Israeli technology, expertise, and capital in order to move their economies off of a hydrocarbon base. Israel is potentially a significant exporter of LNG, following discoveries in the Leviathan natural gas oil field, which aligns Israeli economic interests with other energy exporters. Hamas, an Iranian proxy, shattered that emerging alliance.
The attacks on shipping in the Red Sea are, more than anything, a direct assault on the Egyptian economy, and thus on the government of Egypt, which has been at peace with Israel since 1979. Canal revenues last year were $9.4B; the total budget of the Egyptian government is around $97B. Given the ongoing budget deficit and inflation crisis in Egypt, a prolonged disruption of canal traffic could easily destabilize the government. This action by Iranian proxies gives the Iranians enormous leverage against the current Egyptian government, at relatively modest cost. By contrast, the Israeli economy is far less dependent on trade through the Bab al-Mandeb.
In addition, these attacks offer the possibility of doing significant harm to the Saudis. Starting in the 1980’s, a pipeline was built from the oil fields in Eastern Saudi Arabia to the port at Yanbu, located on the Red Sea, to allow exports to bypass the Straits of Hormuz and the Bab al-Mandeb. This pipeline was attacked in 2019 by the Houthis, and could be attacked again. The combination of attacks on this pipeline and attacks on shipping in the Bab al-Mandeb opens the possibility of closing the Red Sea entirely to the export of Saudi oil and natural gas. The same logic plays out with regard to the Straits of Hormuz and the possibility of attacking the pipeline in Abu Dhabi that was constructed to bypass this maritime chokepoint.
Given this pattern of establishing proxies near maritime chokepoints, it is not surprising that Iran is sponsoring terrorist and insurgent activities in Morocco, with the intention of establishing a capability to close the Straits of Gibraltar.
In point of fact, the Iranians seek to dominate the Persian Gulf, at the Strait of Hormuz, and the Red Sea and Suez Canal, at the Bab al-Mandeb. In addition, Iranian geostrategic influence has extended across the Fertile Crescent, via Shi’ite militias in Iraq; through Syria by virtue of support for the Alawite Baathist regime during the recent civil war; and into Lebanon and to the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean, thanks to support for Hezbollah. Prior to October 7, the Iranian war in Yemen was fought primarily, but not exclusively, by Iranian proxies against Saudi proxies, with some incidents of direct attacks by the Houthis on Saudi Arabia. However, since mid-October, Iranian proxies have launched a campaign of repeated attacks on American outposts in Iraq and Syria. Iran is using the occasion of the Hamas-Israel war to attempt to dislodge the U.S. military presence from the area.
Overall, the Iranian strategy appears to be one of encirclement of Jordan, Kuwait, the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. In addition, Iran seeks to destabilize Jordan and the West Bank in Israel – given their large Palestinian populations – through a continuation and intensification of the war in Gaza. For Iran, the attack on Egypt’s economy by shutting down revenue from the Suez Canal opens the possibility of undermining Egypt’s relationship with Israel. A glance at a map of the region reveals that breaking the Egypt-Israel detente is a grand prize in this strategy of encirclement.
Meanwhile, Israel faces its own Iranian effort at encirclement. The war on Hamas in Gaza, the strikes against Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the attacks on Iranian-backed militias in Syria are all aimed to break this localized Iranian strategy. Obviously, Israel’s military efforts serve the objective interests of the Saudi and Gulf State elite, though they cannot publicly admit it.
To the north of the Fertile Crescent, Turkey reaps as many benefits as possible by being an economic middleman for Putin’s Russia. Erdogan’s anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism remain, for the moment, largely performative; other than making provocative comments about Israeli genocide directed at the Palestinians, ErdoÄŸan has kept Turkey out of the recent conflict in Israel.
Now the Arab Gulf states are in an incredible bind: Their leaders know that they need Western support against an Iran that is likely to go nuclear in the near future, and some of them can see the value in at least a quiet alliance with Israel. But their people – and many of their leaders – hate the Jews and have been indoctrinated over generations to seek the genocide not just of the Jews in Israel, but also worldwide. Any overt alliance with Israel is out for the foreseeable future, since any such move would endanger their regimes. Iran has successfully driven a wedge between their adversaries.
One thing is clear: While the West must support Israel to achieve a decisive victory in Gaza, by securing the death or unconditional surrender of both Hamas’ leadership and their supporters, this is only one small piece of a much broader war. Israel will need strong Western support against an all-out attack from the north by Hezbollah. How this may be accomplished is open to question. The United States just announced the withdrawal of the Gerald R. Ford carrier strike group from the Eastern Mediterranean, thereby reducing the American presence once again in the Middle East. By withdrawing this naval presence from the Eastern Mediterranean, the current administration in Washington is inviting Iran to intensify its proxy wars against Israel while signaling to the Saudis a fecklessness that endangers American interests throughout the region.
Furthermore, stopping the attacks in the Red Sea will require an ongoing naval and airborne commitment to protect shipping, combined with both direct attacks on the Houthi forces and renewed support for Saudi proxies in Yemen. And most importantly, if the United States and its European allies want to see an end to these proxy attacks on freedom of the seas, Western interests, and Western allies, it will be necessary to show the leaders of Iran that the kinetic consequences will not be limited to their proxies and catspaws.
So far, deterrence has failed with regard to Iran; this needs to be remedied. Reestablishing deterrence is an existential issue for the allies of the United States in the Middle East. The only practical way for this to occur is through punishment – not just for Iranian proxies, which we presume are operating to advance Iran’s geostrategy of encirclement, but also for the source of these many attacks: There need to be direct and dire consequences for Iran.
These consequences should start with strong Western sponsorship for insurgencies, within Iran, by ethnic minorities including (but not limited to) the Kurds, the Azerbaijanis, and other disaffected religious and ethnic groups. In addition, a serious economic price needs to be extracted through attacks on the oil terminals that the Iranians are using to dodge international sanctions. Punitive strikes on Iranian nuclear and military facilities, as well as critical infrastructure and missile production hubs, are certainly called for. Such punishments are beyond the capacity of the Israelis and will require resources from the United States. If the Iranians can use proxies to attack Western interests and allies, surely the United States can facilitate attacks by proxies of our own.
Michael Hochberg earned his PhD in Applied Physics from Caltech and is currently the President at Luminous Computing, a company building supercomputers for machine learning. He founded four companies, representing an exit value over a billion dollars in aggregate, spent some time as a tenured professor, and started the world’s first silicon photonics foundry service. He co-authored a widely used textbook on silicon photonics, and has published work in Science, Nature, National Review, The Hill, American Spectator, RealClearDefense, Fast Company, etc.
Leonard Hochberg taught at Stanford University (among other institutions), was appointed a Fellow at the Hoover Institution, and co-founded Strategic Forecasting, Inc. (i.e., STRATFOR). He has published work in Social Science History, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Orbis, National Review, The Hill, American Spectator, RealClearDefense, etc. He is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and serves as the Coordinator of the Mackinder Forum-U.S. (www.mackinderforum.org).